A Fiery Festival and a Red Hot Tip for a Nara Day Trip

Fire FestivalI’m lucky enough to call the historic city of Kyoto my home, but it’s also a destination that features on the majority of our Small Group Tours and also in the tailored Self Guided Adventures that we put together for independent travellers. Not only is Kyoto a fantastic place to spend a few days exploring, but it’s also a great base for making day trips, and the ancient capital of Nara is probably the easiest and most popular option.

I visited Nara last weekend to check out the annual Wakakusa Yamayaki festival, in which Mt. Wakakusa in Nara is set ablaze! This is an event that takes place on the 4th Saturday in January every year (although it’s re-scheduled for the following Saturday in cases of heavy rain), so you’ll need to wait until January 23rd 2016 if you want to attend (although there are some pictures below to whet your appetite!). In the meantime, I’d also like to let you know my top tip for enhancing a day trip to Nara that you can enjoy year round!

Nara is located just 45 minutes from Kyoto by train (and if you’re travelling with a Japan Rail Pass, you can use your pass to make the journey at no extra cost). Although there’s plenty to see and do in Nara, it’s possible to see the main sights in half a day, so my top tip is to stop off on the way at Obaku station to visit one of Kyoto prefecture’s hidden treasures – Manpuku-ji.

Manpuku-ji is a Zen temple belonging to the Obaku school of Zen. There are three schools of Zen; Rinzai, Soto, and Obaku. The Rinzai and Soto schools are the largest, with Rinzai temples traditionally having had more of a stronghold in the cities (most of the Zen temples in Kyoto belong to the Rinzai school) and the Soto school being more prevalent in rural areas. The Obaku school is a much smaller and lesser known school, and although all schools of Zen made their way to Japan via China, the Obaku school retained far more of its Chinese characteristics, which is reflected in much of the temple’s architecture. This makes it a particularly interesting temple to visit. Let’s have a look why… Let the photo blog begin!

From Kyoto station it takes just 25 minutes to get to Obaku station on the JR Nara Line. Make sure you take a 'Local' train (rather than the faster 'Rapid' service, which sails through Obaku and heads straight on to Nara!)

From Kyoto station it takes just 25 minutes to get to Obaku station on the JR Nara Line. Make sure you take a ‘Local’ train (rather than the faster ‘Rapid’ service, which sails through Obaku and heads straight on toward Nara!)

From directly outside the station, Mampuku-ji is clearly signposted. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk there from the station.

From directly outside the station, Manpuku-ji is clearly signposted. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk there from the station.

On entering the temple complex, you'll be greeted by the Sanmon - the 'Mountain Gate'. Even though many temples in Japan are not actually located on mountains, they are regarded as being on metaphorical peaks in keeping with the fact that most of the first Zen temples in China were located in such environs.

On entering the temple complex, you’ll be greeted by the Sanmon – the ‘Mountain Gate’. Even though many temples in Japan are not actually located on mountains, they are regarded as being on metaphorical peaks. This is in keeping with the fact that the first Zen temples in China were located in such environs.

After passing through the Sanmon (and paying the entrance fee - 500yen for adults), the first building you will encounter is the Tennouden, where you will find this chap enshrined. Many people will recognise him as the 'Laughing Buddha', so often found in Chinese restaurants, although in fact he's not a representation of the historical Buddha. He's actually Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, known as Hotei in Japan and Budai in China. His bulging belly emphasises his association with good luck, wealth and happiness.

After passing through the Sanmon (and paying the entrance fee – 500yen for adults), the first building you will encounter is the Tennouden, where you will find this chap enshrined. Many people will recognise him as the ‘Laughing Buddha’, so often found in Chinese restaurants, although in fact he’s not a representation of the historical Buddha. He’s actually Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, known as Hotei in Japan and Budai in China. His bulging belly emphasises his association with good luck, wealth and happiness.

Throughout the temple complex you will find architecture that's a little different to that found at other Buddhist temples in Japan. These white walls and curvaceous doorways are an example of the temple's lingering Chinese influence.

Throughout the temple complex you will find architecture that’s a little different to that found at other Buddhist temples in Japan. These white walls and curvaceous doorways are an example of the temple’s lingering Chinese influence.

Dotted around the complex you will also come across various instruments which are used to regulate the daily schedule. This is the 'Umpan', or 'Cloud Plate'. It's rung at a variety of times during the day, but is primarily used to announce mealtimes, therefore you will usually find it outside the 'Kuri', the temple's kitchen.

Dotted around the complex you will also come across various instruments which are used to regulate the daily schedule. This is the ‘Umpan’, or ‘Cloud Plate’. It’s rung at a variety of times during the day, but is primarily used to announce mealtimes, therefore you will usually find it outside the ‘Kuri’, the temple’s kitchen.

Another instrument that you'll come across is the 'Mokugyo' or 'Wooden Fish'. The fish is hollow and struck with a wooden mallet, which produces a pleasing clonking sound. The Mokugyo at Mampuku-ji is prized as a particularly fine specimen - not least for its impressive size!

Another instrument that you’ll come across is the ‘Mokugyo’ or ‘Wooden Fish’. The fish is hollow and struck with a wooden mallet, which produces a pleasant  ‘clonk’ sound. The mokugyo at Manpuku-ji is prized as a particularly fine specimen – not least for its impressive size!

One final temple instrument to look out for is the 'Han', a solid wooden block struck with a mallet, which produces a hard 'clack' sound. The main use of this instrument is to announce that 'Zazen' seated meditation will begin shortly. Inscribed on the Han is a reminder of the importance of the monastic life: 'Birth and Death is a great matter. Life is fleeting.  Wake up to this fact! And do not allow yourself to waste time!' A great motto for everyone, Buddhist or not!

One final temple instrument to look out for is the ‘Han’, a solid wooden block struck with a mallet, which produces a hard ‘clack’ sound. The main use of this instrument is to announce that ‘zazen’ seated meditation will begin shortly. Inscribed on the han is a reminder to the monks of the importance of the monastic life:
‘Birth and Death is a great matter.
Life is fleeting.
Wake up to this fact!
And do not allow yourself to waste time!’
A great motto for everyone, Buddhist or not!

One final thing that Mampuku-ji is famous for are the fences that surround the buildings, which are based on swastika designs. Although the swastika now has sinister associations in the west following it's appropriation by the Nazi party, it has a history going back thousands of years in Asia. It began as a sacred Hindu symbol of auspiciousness that was later adopted by Buddhism. Although it's a little tricky to make out the swastika pattern in this fence...

One final thing that Manpuku-ji is famous for are the fences that surround the buildings, which are based on swastika designs. Although the swastika now has sinister associations in the West following its appropriation by the Nazi party, it has a benign history going back thousands of years in Asia. It began as a sacred Hindu symbol of auspiciousness that was later adopted by Buddhism. Although it’s a little tricky to make out the swastika pattern in this fence…

... it's much easier in this one!

… it’s much easier in this one!

All in all, Mampuku-ji is highly worth a visit. The grounds are large and extensive, and the borrowed scenery is beautiful. Another huge bonus is that compared to the large crowds that are drawn to the major temples in central Kyoto, you're likely to have this wonderful site almost to yourself!

All in all, Manpuku-ji is highly worth a visit. The grounds are large and extensive, and the borrowed scenery is beautiful. Another huge bonus is that compared to the large crowds that are drawn to the major temples in central Kyoto, you’re likely to have this wonderful place almost to yourself!

Having stopped off in Obaku to visit Manpuku-ji, it’s just a short walk back to Obaku station to continue on to Nara. Although you can take a local line train from Obaku station straight there, you can shave 10 minutes off your journey by getting off at Uji, the next station, and hopping onto the next Rapid Service train, which takes less than half an hour.

Even though I stopped off at Manpuku-ji, I still made it to Nara just before lunchtime. There are lots of great restaurants offering great value lunch deals lining the roads from JR Nara station to Nara Park in the centre of the city, where you will find the majority of Nara’s sights.

Although I was visiting Nara for the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival, I still had time to visit Nara’s main attractions before the main event kicked off. Let the photo blog re-commence!

Todai-ji temple (the largest wooden structure in the world!) looked as beautiful as ever, even with my ugly mug blocking the view!

Todai-ji temple (the largest wooden structure in the world!) looked as beautiful as ever, even with my ugly mug blocking the view!

I recommend swinging by the Nigatsu-do, one of Todai-ji's sub-temples. It has a balcony on stilts that gives a great view over Nara Park...

I recommend swinging by the Nigatsu-do, one of Todai-ji’s sub-temples. It has a balcony on stilts that gives a great view over Nara Park…

...and entrance is free! Always a bonus!

…and entrance is free! Always a bonus!

After taking in some of Nara's year-round attractions. I headed over to Mt. Wakakusa (more of a very large hill, really!) to watch one of the festivals rather unique events...

After taking in some of Nara’s year-round attractions. I headed over to Mt. Wakakusa (more of a very large hill, really!) to watch one of the festival’s rather unique events…

... This is the 'Deer Cracker Throwing Tournament'. Hundreds of people line up to throw giant 'Senbei' rice crackers frisbee style to crowds of eagerly awaiting deer. People whose crackers travel furthest are eligible for a prize!

This is the ‘Deer Cracker Throwing Tournament’. Hundreds of people line up to throw giant ‘senbei’ rice crackers frisbee style to crowds of eagerly awaiting deer. People whose crackers travel furthest are eligible for a prize!

The next event in the festival schedule takes place at a big bonfire, the fuel for which is provided by members of the public bringing their New Year's decorations from their recently completed winter festivities to be burnt.

The next event in the festival schedule takes place at a big bonfire, the fuel for which is provided by members of the public bringing their New Year’s decorations from their recently completed winter festivities to be burnt.

After a short ceremony, a torch is lit from the fire...

After a short ceremony, a torch is lit from the fire…

... and from the torch three lanterns are lit. There is one lantern representing each of Nara's main religious sites; Todai-ji temple, Kofuku-ji temple, and Kasuga shrine. The lanterns are then paraded through the city towards the Mt. Wakakusa.

… and from the torch three lanterns are lit. There is one lantern representing each of Nara’s main religious sites; Todai-ji temple, Kofuku-ji temple, and Kasuga shrine. The lanterns are then paraded through Nara Park towards Mt. Wakakusa.

Along the way, Shinto priests in fabulous outfits accompany the procession and play music using conch shells. Although it might be hard to believe from listening to it, the noises aren't random - that's sheet music tucked into the conch case!

Along the way, Shinto priests in fabulous outfits accompany the procession and play music using conch shells. Although it might be hard to believe from listening to it, the noises aren’t random – that’s sheet music tucked into the conch case!

On arrival back at the base of Mt. Wakakusa, there were 300 of Nara's firefighters getting ready to do the exact opposite of their job - to set fire to the mountain!

On arrival back at the base of Mt. Wakakusa, there were 300 of Nara’s firefighters getting ready to do the exact opposite of their day job – to set fire to the mountain!

While we were waiting for the sun to set, there were fantastic views across Nara to be had from the side of the mountain!

While we were waiting for the sun to set, there were fantastic views across Nara to be had from the side of the mountain!

Once it was dark, the fire from the three lanterns was used to set fire to another bonfire! The whole festival is essentially a big fire relay!

Once it was dark, the fire from the three lanterns was used to set fire to another bonfire! The whole festival is essentially a big fire relay!

While the bonfire got going, we were treated to a truly spectacular 15 minute firework display... Did I mention entrance is free? Bonus!

While the bonfire got going, we were treated to a truly spectacular 15 minute firework display… Did I mention entrance is free? Bonus!

Of course an event like this is bound to attract the crowds! But that's what provides the festival atmosphere!

Of course an event like this is bound to attract the crowds, but that’s what provides the festival atmosphere! Luckily I managed to get a spot right at the front!

With the fireworks finished, it was time to get down to the main business of setting the mountain on fire. In the next stage of the fire relay, the firefighters took torches lit from the bonfire and set fire to the grass on the edge of the mountain. It started off slow...

With the fireworks finished, it was time to get down to the main business of setting the mountain on fire. In the next stage of the fire relay, the firefighters took torches lit from the bonfire and set fire to the grass on the edge of the mountain. It started off slow…

... but thanks to the dry conditions, the fire quickly spread to envelop the whole mountainside!

… but thanks to the dry conditions, the fire quickly spread to envelop the whole mountainside!

Although the fire can sometimes last for nearly an hour, the dry conditions meant that the whole mountain was scorched within about 15 minutes, and it was time to head home.

Although the fire can sometimes last for nearly an hour, the dry conditions meant that the whole mountain was scorched within about 15 minutes, and it was time to head home.

The origins of the Wakakusa Yamayaki festival are a little obscure. Some say that it evolved as a means of settling boundary conflicts between the different temples in Nara, while another view holds that it was a method to keep away wild boars. In any case, it’s a unique and spectacular event, and well worth attending if you’re in the Kansai area at the end of January. Of course, at any other time of year Nara is still a great place to visit as a day trip from Kyoto, but don’t forget to stop off at Obaku to visit Manpuku-ji on the way!

Our top 10 tips for travel in Japan

Between them, our staff have well over a century’s experience living and working in Japan, and have travelled every inch of this wonderful country – from the snowswept plains of northern Hokkaido to remote Yonaguni Island in the far southwest.

As you might expect, our band of intrepid explorers have picked up all kinds of invaluable hints, tips and advice along the way. From getting hopelessly lost in the backstreets of Tokyo to making all kinds of cultural faux pas – we’ve made all the mistakes there are to make in Japan and lived to tell the tale. It’d be a shame not to pass on our insider knowledge so that you don’t have to do the same!

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After surveying all 64 current members of the InsideJapan staff and plumbing the depths of their Japan knowledge, I came up with this list of top tips and recommendations to help you get the most out of your Japan holiday:

  1. Keep an open mind and an open schedule

When speaking to the InsideJapan team, this piece of advice came up more than any other tip.

Whilst it’s definitely useful to do your research and have an itinerary planned before you travel (see point eight), don’t get so caught up in your plans that you don’t have a chance to enjoy the unexpected things that make travelling in Japan so exciting. Japan is a country where even the most mundane tasks (going to the loo, getting a drink from a vending machine) can be exciting to the uninitiated – and everyone on our team will agree that the most fascinating and memorable moments from their time in Japan could never have been planned.

With this in mind, don’t be afraid of having ‘gaps’ or ‘empty spaces’ in your holiday plans. Take it slowly and throw yourself into every new situation and you’ll find that this is when you have the chance encounters and experiences that you’ll always remember.

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  1. Forget about the ‘language barrier’ 

Learn a few words in Japanese. Now, we’re not suggesting that you become an expert in the language – in fact, you don’t even need to learn a complete sentence. Simply learning the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ will really go a long way. The Japanese are generally so impressed and pleased that you have made any effort at all to master their language that you don’t need any more!

On a similar note, don’t be put off travelling to Japan because of the perceived ‘language barrier’. Though you may well find that not that many Japanese people can speak English – that doesn’t mean that people won’t go a thousand miles out of their way to help you, even if it is through gestures and pointing.

Good advice when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak much English is to speak in short sentences (or even one-word sentences). “Ginza”, for example, is much more likely to get you to where you want to be than “excuse me kind sir, but could I trouble you to direct me to Ginza subway station, if you’d be so very kind?” – not that you’d say that, but you know what I mean.

Oh – and talk to people, even if they don’t speak good English. Don’t be shy. Anyone on the InsideJapan team will tell you that you don’t need a common language to make a friend!

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  1. Don’t worry about ‘doing the wrong thing’

Japan has become famous as a place of obscure cultural rules and impenetrable social codes – so much so that some travellers are put off visiting for fear that they will accidentally make a boob of themselves by trampling insensitively over the cherished customs of their hosts.

It’s true that Japan’s etiquette can be somewhat confusing – and you are almost inevitably going to ‘do the wrong thing’ at some point – but the key thing to remember is this: no-one cares. Nobody is going to be offended if you forget to take off your shoes in the right place, or if you’re not aware of the intricacies of chopstick etiquette. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to know everything (and actually, some Japanese people will be surprised that you know anything). As long as you’re not being deliberately culturally insensitive, you’ll be fine.

As a rule, the Japanese take great pleasure in teaching others about their culture, so in making a faux pas you could even be making a new friend.

 

  1. Have an onsen experience 

We asked all our staff what they loved most about living in Japan, and we got some interesting answers. Possibly the most popular response (after the delicious cuisine, which took the top spot without a fight) was onsen culture.

Onsen are Japanese hot spring baths, and thanks to the high level of volcanic activity in Japan they can be found up and down the country. From steamy baths in the snow in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps to rustic onsen villages deep in the forest; from onsen on the beach to time-honoured bathhouses like Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen – hot spring bathing is an integral (and extremely enjoyable) aspect of Japanese culture that should not be missed.

What’s not to love about a hot bath? Well, there is one catch: you have to do it in your birthday suit. In front of complete strangers. This is the part that puts most people off – and quite understandably. But if there’s anything InsideJapan staff could say to prospective onsen-goers it’s this: just do it! It’s only strange to start with – before long you’ll have forgotten your reservations and will wonder why you ever hesitated.

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  1. Stay at a ryokan inn

Like bathing in an onsen, staying at a traditional ryokan inn is one of those intrinsically Japanese experiences that no visitor to the country should miss out on. Japan is famous for its hospitality, and at a ryokan you really experience this at its best.

Sleep on comfortable futon laid out by a kimono-wearing attendant on a tatami mat floor, look out over exquisite Japanese gardens, tiptoe through shoji sliding paper doors on geta sandals, wrap yourself in a traditional yukata bathrobe to visit the in-house onsen baths, and sample delicious regional food at breakfast and dinner.

You simply haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan – trust us. You won’t regret it.

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  1. Get off the beaten track

It’s one of those hackneyed travel phrases that you’ll find lurking in every Lonely Planet guide and travel blog, used to describe every broken-down shack and one-horse town across the globe. And yet – loath as we are to peddle clichés – it is only by ‘getting off the beaten track’ that you can really get a rounded impression of Japan.

The big cities and famous sights are ‘on the beaten track’ for a reason. They’re the iconic views, the celebrated historical monuments and the locations that you’ve always dreamed of visiting. But it is by heading away from these destinations – into the countryside, the mountains, and the remote islands – that you’ll discover a side of Japan you never expected.

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Here’s a nice little video from one of our customers who spent a couple of weeks in Japan seeing some incredible places and meeting wonderful people in some of the more famous places and the lesser known places….a good taste of Japan.

  1. Visit an izakaya

One of the pieces of advice that cropped up time and time again in conversation with the InsideJapan team was to visit an izakaya. It’s hard to explain just what an izakaya is if you’ve never been to one, but they are most often described as the Japanese version of a British pub – a description that doesn’t quite do them justice.

Izakaya are where the Japanese go to eat, drink and be merry. They range from the cheap and cheerful (every dish 240 yen/£1.30) to the super-duper top-end cuisine, but what they all have in common is that they serve a wide range of small, tapas-style dishes to be shared amongst your group, and plenty of beer and sake.

It can be daunting to walk into an izakaya straight off the street – especially if it’s a tiny local establishment with no English menu or English-speaking staff – but if you’re brave enough, this is the best way to get chatting to the locals and try some delicious regional foods.

But don’t worry – if you’re too chicken to go it alone, InsideJapan can arrange an izakaya experience where one of our tour leaders can show you the ropes.

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  1. Do your research 

In our experience, the more you know about Japan the more it will intrigue you. Before you travel, have a look into the history of the areas you’re planning to visit and find out a bit about the culture – both contemporary and traditional. Doing things like watching a sumo match, meeting a geisha, visiting a Zen temple or exploring a shogun’s mausoleum will be that much more fascinating if you know a little about the background.

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  1. Hire a bike. Or a car. Or a motorbike.

We have nothing but excellent things to say about the clean, efficient, convenient and downright wonderful public transport system in Japan. There’s nothing quite like taking a ride on the bullet train, or navigating by the Tokyo subway.

But if you want to see a bit more and really get out of the main tourist traps, sometimes it’s best to go under your own steam. Hiring a bicycle will really allow you to explore bits of Japanese cities and countryside that you’d never have discovered otherwise, whilst renting a car or a motorbike will allow you to be even more adventurous and really get out into the unknown.

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10.  Bring plenty of cash (but not because Japan is expensive!)

Surprising as it may seem for a country that is world-famous for being technologically advanced, Japan is still very much a cash-based society and many places will still not accept plastic. It can even be difficult to withdraw cash from an ATM at the weekend or after 5pm – so instead of wasting time exchanging travellers’ cheques or hunting for a cash machine that accepts foreign cards, be sure to bring plenty of yen! Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so there’s no need to fret about having pockets bulging with cash either.

And while we’re on the subject of money, don’t be put off visiting Japan because of its reputation for being expensive. It’s not the cheapest country in the world, but Japan is certainly not as a dear as most people think. Food, for example, is very cheap and extremely good quality – you can easily have an excellent meal for no more than 1,000 yen (about £5.50). Subway travel is also reasonable (the most you’ll pay for any journey on the Tokyo underground is a couple of quid), and capsule hotels offer a night’s sleep for less than 4,000 yen (about £20). Whatever anyone else tells you, it is possible to do Japan on a shoestring.

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These are only our top ten tips – between them the InsideJapan staff came up with many more – enough to flesh out a follow-up post, in fact! Watch this space…

A Very Japanese Christmas

Humber family in Kyoto

The Humber family travelled to Japan on a fully tailored trip over Christmas and New Year last year and had a fantastic time. Here, Paul Humber has kindly written us a blog piece about their experience – and why they’ll definitely be going back to Japan again!

Before we flew out to Japan, a French colleague took me to one side and said, “No matter what your pre-conceptions of Japan, no matter what you think will happen; Japan will exceed all your expectations, and then some.” To which I lamely replied, “Gosh!” My colleague’s words were proved to be correct; and this was due in no small measure to the help we received from InsideJapan Tours.

My original instinct when planning the trip was to simply make Tokyo our base for two weeks and take the occasional day trip out of the city to see other sights: this was the format suggested by a major ‘household name’ tour operator and it transpired that it would have been a big mistake. InsideJapan suggested we start in Tokyo for two days and then take in Hakone National Park for two nights, Kyoto for three nights, see Nara, and then travel onto Osaka for two nights, before returning to Tokyo for a final couple of days. This plan turned out to be far better than my original idea: much as we loved Tokyo and all it had to offer, ultimately we probably preferred Kyoto and Osaka, and it was a definite treat to see the countryside in Hakone.

Mount Fuji seen from Hakone National Park

Mount Fuji seen from Hakone National Park

The highlights are too numerous to mention but can be glimpsed in our photographs. In Tokyo on day one we came across a traditional wedding in full swing at the Meiji-jingu Shinto shrine, and we went to Japan’s oldest amusement park, called Hanashiki, which thanks to a preservation order has the same rides it had in the 1950s: the ‘Surprising House’ was
particular fun. In the same breath we could take in the marvellous Senso-ji Temple and make wishes in the smoke and have our fortune told by ‘sticks’. That evening we went to the ‘Robot’ restaurant/bar/cabaret which was relentlessly neon and fun and, like a lot of Japan, surprisingly good value.

Shinto wedding ceremony at Tokyo's Meiji Shrine

Shinto wedding ceremony at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine

We had taken up InsideJapan Tours’ suggestion of having the services of guides to help us in each city and our original motivation to do this was that we feared we would have trouble understanding the local transport systems and would not be able to decipher street signs and so on. In the event it transpired that Japan’s transport system is incredibly advanced and easy to navigate and it has an ‘Oyster card’ style system that worked regardless of which city we were now in. One tiny example of how well designed their transport system is: when you leave a subway station there is usually a flagstone set in the pavement that shows you where north, south, east and west is. It is the kind of simple but effective attention to detail at which the Japanese excel and it can make such a difference for a tourist trying to get their bearings.

So the joy of having guides turned out to be that they were able to tell us 101 things about the cities and about Japan that we wouldn’t otherwise know. All three guides sourced by InsideJapan were great, but I would particularly recommend the ‘street food’ tour in Osaka where the lady took us to one street restaurant for a first course, then a second establishment for a second course and so on, so that we could experience and learn about a variety of cuisines in one evening and see how the locals were living. Osaka has really embraced the kind of fluorescent screens and lit up buildings that we stereotypically associate with Japan and when these are reflected in their waterways, it makes for great photos and even greater memories. There is also a top quality aquarium in the city that is worth checking out.

 

 

Spiritual Enlightenment

Kyoto is famous for its temples and, as my colleague said, they exceeded expectations. But over and above the temples it would be crucial not to miss the 1001 gilded statues at Sanjusangen-do that date back to the 13th century. Simply breathtaking. Kyoto also has some unexpected 1920s architecture, some ancient avenues of tea houses, a Manga museum, a bamboo forest, and a kilometre long alleyway of brilliant restaurants. One of our ‘treats’ was to go to a genuine tea ceremony. Kyoto generally has got more of a boho feel to it, with a large student population and a more laid back style. In a rare break from Japanese food, we had a great quality cheap meal in the basement of an ex 1920s printworks called Café Independents, and some excellent cocktails in the bar of the hotel that InsideJapan Tours had recommended.

Nara made a great trip out from Kyoto with its famous temples and deer park, and Hakone National park was an interesting break from the cities with its ancient roads and walks, its trip across the lake and its open-air art gallery/sculpture park. We stayed in an ancient lodge and were waited on by a traditional housekeeper, bathed in the natural hot springs, and were fed traditional foods. It is the first time I have ever had raw lobster on Christmas day.

Santa Motorbikes

Back in Tokyo we visited Roppongi Hills to see how the rich live, which initially we thought might have been a mistake (after all, I have seen Prada shops before), but when we went up to the top floor to take aerial views of the city we had an unexpected treat when we discovered a comprehensive (temporary) exhibition of Tim Burton’s art and films. There were hand written notes from Tim Burton to Johnny Depp, there were doodles that Tim Burton had done on restaurant napkins which formed ideas for his later films; there was a sea of his private artwork. It formed – and this was a recurrent theme on our trip – an unexpected surprise that had to simply take its place alongside all the other unexpected surprises we experienced every day.

We visited the famous Shibuya crossing where the Japanese dutifully wait for the green light to cross the road, then dash across and stop halfway to take ‘selfies’ of themselves standing on what is thought to be the busiest pedestrian crossing in Japan. Shibuya and Harajuku afford excellent chances to take photos of the local teenagers who love to dress up and pose, and it was in Harajuku that we chanced across a ‘rabbit’ café where the locals dressed up as bunnies to have afternoon tea that was, err, bunny shaped. Only in Japan.

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Sadly, after two weeks, we had to come home to England and within a day we had all vowed to return when work and life allows. There were temples we hadn’t had time to see; we never got to a kitten café or a sumo wrestling event or to their theatres, their national photographic gallery was closed for a refurb, and there were towns we hadn’t been able to visit; and all this despite our packed and varied itinerary.

Japan is evidently a country that enjoys doing things well; whether it is when they rebuild a temple, run a public transport system, put on a cabaret on, or serve you a meal. My French colleague had been wrong: our trip didn’t exceed expectations. Every hour of every day of our trip exceeded expectations and this was thanks in no small measure to the advice, knowledge and attention to detail of InsideJapan Tours. We cannot thank them, and the Japanese, enough.

Seal at Osaka Aquarium

Seal at Osaka Aquarium

1 Country, 2 Worlds – A Winter & sun adventure in Japan

What is there to do in the winter in Japan?

Surely it’s out of season, there are no cherry blossoms, so come on?

Who would bother? Here’s a little something to provoke a little thought…

As a Tour Leader with IJT, I have been on a bit of a winter break. Given the low bookings, that is normal for this time of the year, however instead, my parents decided that they would come and endure my tour leadership for a couple of weeks. And what a 2 weeks it has been. Certainly, like all tourists, my folks have their amusing foibles – inevitably emphasized as always in the flight of travel, but their decision to leave the wet, grey of the UK to experience something a little different, and extremely varied, left me once again in awe of this great country.

In 14 days we enjoyed the crisp, blue skies of Tokyo – perfect for a photography addict like my dad; bussed just an hour and a half out of Tokyo to enjoy rural walks with constant clear views of Mt Fuji; walked (alone) on the snowy Nakasendo highway in the central Nagano region; hung out with the famous Macaque Monkeys in Jigoku Valley; visited the gloriously maintained castle town of Matsumoto; dipped in outdoor baths in Hirayu Onsen’s snow world; marveled at the frozen Otaki waterfall; rode the Shin-Hotaka cable car to enjoy the best views possible of the Northern Alps; and walked trails cut into 3m of snow, before heading back to the capital. The only way to really show how extraordinary this all was is of course with a photo blog…

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Sumida River Cruiser the “Himiko” glides by Tokyo’s 634m Skytree and Asahi Beer Brewery with its unique “La Flamme D’Or”.

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Tokyo’s Hamarikyu Gardens in reflective mood, late afternoon.

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Even before the neon is switched on, wild and whacky Shinjuku shines bright in the Tokyo winter sun.

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Cable car ride above Kawaguchiko Lake, just an hour and a half from the capital!

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Fuji basks in late afternoon sun.

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Kawaguchiko Town at sunset.

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Into snow country – Magome town, the centuries’ old post town on the Nakasendo Highway.

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Dad has no problems avoiding cables or other tourists in his quest for the perfect shot in Magome – we passed just 5 people in the entire village!

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Mum realizes that we still have a long way to go until Tsumago Village, across the Prefectural border in Nagano.

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Happy snow hikers on the Nakasendo.

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A sole local wanders through Tsumago Village early morning.

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Deep snow of Nagano

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This young monkey enjoys a little attention from mum and the tourist visitors to the monkey reserve in Jigoku Valley, Nagano.

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Parents and monkeys with a sprinkling of snow.

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The perfect Matsumoto Castle. Renovated a tad since its completion in the early 1500s, however still a perfect example of Japanese castle architecture.

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Looking north on the Hotaka Cable Car towards Hotaka Dake Peak and the spearhead peak of Mt Yari, Nagano prefecture.

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Snow clings to the resilient pines.

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The breathtaking Hotaka Ridgline.

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Why not one more?

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Mum finds herself dwarfed by the deep Nagano snow.

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More snow-coated flora

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Hotaka’s unique double decker cable car.

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Hirayu Onsen’s little gem – the Otaki Falls which completely freeze in the deep winter months. Of course, we had the whole valley to ourselves again!

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How many photos of a waterfall? Glad I won’t be around to see all 200 at the next family barbecue:)

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The hospitable Hirayu No Mori Japanese Inn. A warm escape from the freezing conditions.

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Time for an outdoor hot spring bath in the snow. It may be minus 15 outside but who cares when you can relax in 42 degree water and take in the views!

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A little traditional “Hida Gasshozukkuri” architecture in Hirayu Onsen. Deep snow requires steep thatched roofs!

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Time for a little snowboarding of course, Hirayu Onsen. And yes, I had the resort literally to myself!!

Oh, did you think that was the end of the trip?

Not quite. After a brief repose in my Koenji home in West Tokyo, we then stepped on a plane in the wonderfully designed and smoothly functioning Haneda Airport for a 3 hour flight down to the Yaeyama Island chain of Okinawa Prefecture, namely to stay on Ishigaki Island. Here was a quite different experience I might add: guitars on the beach (private no less by default); snorkeling in cobalt shores – observing sea turtles, sea snakes and the rare blue coral; walking rocky coastlines; marveling at the tropical flora and fauna; touring the easily-navigable island by car; oh and at night enjoying the seafood hospitality and Karaoke talents of some retired Ishigaki gentlemen, including exclusive shamisen (3-stringed lute) performance – friends for life!  In contrast to all the previous week, Ishigaki looked something like this:

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Our traditional little Okinawan home for the week!

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Ishigaki mangrove and shoreline

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The snow melted here about 10,000 years ago. Time for shorts and sunglasses in the jungle!

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One of the many varieties of Hibiscus flowering on Ishigaki in January.

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Room with a view.

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Even my guitar enjoyed a little basking in the sun!

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My mum hogs the whole beach to herself – not a soul in sight until…

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…2 locals turn up, a little chilled in their “deep of winter” – it was only 24 degrees, after all! What do they expect if they don’t wear a scarf and gloves!

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However, even during the winter “chill” in Okinawa, the smiles are as warm as ever. Famed for their long life expectancy, elderly Okinawan women are renowned for their seemingly eternal energy. This young lady in her early 80s is testament to that – oh and, yes, she drank me under the table!

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The Toujin Tombs – in memory of 128 Chinese seafarers who lost their lives off the coast of Ishigaki, shipwrecked enroute to America in 1852.

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Sugar cane is cultivated on the island – producing molasses, syrups and fueling the islands popular confectionary industry.

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Getting around by car is very easy in January – for just 60 pounds for 2 days (including fuel), we were able to take in the whole island.

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Looking out from the observatory at Banna Park, just outside Ishigaki town.

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Rugged Sakieda Bay in NW Ishigaki.

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Kabira Bay – a place to marvel at the white sands and clear waters, then take a glass bottomed boat to view the coral and the teeming sea life.

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Rare blue tipped Coral.

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Fishes and coral of Kabira Bay.

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A lone visitor takes in the colour and tranquility of Kabira Bay.

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One more beach for the day – Ibaruma Bay. And, yes, yawn, we had it all to ourselves!!

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Cave view, Ibaruma Bay.

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A new day, a new island. A 15 minute boat ride took us out to the tiny island of Taketomi.

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Traditional drystone walls and housing on Taketomi Island.

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Local Wildlife on the tiny island of Taketomi

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Taketomi’s west pier – famed for its breathtaking sunsets. Its a shabby place in the daytime as you can see:)

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Glorious sea views from Kondoi Beach, Taketomi Island.

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A friendly local takes the salt from my sweaty hand.

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Talking of friendly locals – these folks are enjoying a sip or 2 of the local firewater, Awaomori. 42% ABV of head splitting, mind bending hooch. I suggest stick to a local Orion beer or something a little less potent! Ichiriki bar in Ishigaki Town has been run by its owner for 40years and is a great place to meet older local folk…

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…who you may find yourself eating with as guest of honor the following night – I was lucky to be able to take dad along for a seafood barbecue.

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Wonderful “Otonashi” (warm Japanese hospitality), especially important to the folks of Ishigaki.

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The sun sets on an amazing stay on Ishigaki. I will be back, hopefully my parents will consider the idea, too!

So there you have it – 2 weeks, a wealth of experiences, hot and cold, sunny and snowy. Don’t wait for the spring to arrive with the masses, get out here during the winter and REALLY experience something a little different – you’ll feel like you have Japan all to yourself!

Top Ten Kanazawa Tips

Although I’m now living in Kyoto (a heaven for a Zen geek such as myself!), I previously spent five years living in the wonderful city of Kanazawa on Honshu’s Japan Sea coast. What makes Kanazawa so special? Let’s have a look!

Here are my top ten things to see and do in Kanazawa – the ‘golden marsh’.

1. Kanazawa Station

Here we are! Kanazawa’s train station is an attraction in itself, featuring a very impressive wooden gate. It was even featured in The Telegraph’s list of the world’s most spectacular stations. From Spring 2015 the station will become even more important with the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen line, which will cut the journey time from Tokyo from 4 hours to 2.5 hours, putting Kanazawa well and truly on the map!

Kanazawa Station gate

Kanazawa Station gate

2. Omicho Market 

With the new bullet train service, it’s only taken you 2.5 hours to arrive from Tokyo, but who can say no to an early lunch? I advise heading to Omicho Market, a 15-minute walk from the station towards the centre of Kanazawa. Nicknamed ‘Kanazawa’s Kitchen’, here you will find all manner of delicious seafood on display as well as restaurants serving up fresh produce. If you didn’t get chance to visit Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo (or couldn’t face the early morning!), Omicho is a great way to experience a similar atmosphere. There is a great conveyor-belt sushi restaurant in the market called ‘Mori Mori Sushi’. I recommend the buri (yellowtail), which is particularly famous in Kanazawa.

Omicho Market

Omicho Market

3. Eastern Tea District

With a belly full of buri it’s just a short walk to the Higashi Chaya-gai (Eastern Tea District) for a diges-tea-f. This is Kanazawa’s geisha district, dating back to the Edo period. Kanazawa was spared from bombing during the Second World War, so the traditional teahouses with their wooden facades are beautifully preserved. Within the tea district you can find a number of delightful little cafes serving tea and cakes. There are also some very nice souvenir and jewellery shops, many of which specialise in products made with gold leaf (99% of Japan’s gold leaf is produced in Kanazawa).

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The Eastern Tea District

4. Oyama Shrine

Heading back towards the centre of the city you’re likely to pass Oyama Jinja, the city’s most notable Shinto shrine. The main gate is particularly interesting, featuring a striking mix of Japanese and European architectural elements including a Dutch stained glass window. The shrine really comes to life on New Year’s eve when people from all over the city flock to the shrine at midnight to wish for health and happiness in the year to come.

Oyama Shrine (Photo: japan-guide.com)

Oyama Shrine (Photo: japan-guide.com)

5. Hyakumangoku Festival

Speaking of festivities, if you happen to be visiting Kanazawa during the first weekend in June, you’ll be able to witness the Hyakumangoku Matsuri, Kanazawa’s biggest festival. The festival starts with a beautiful lantern-floating event on the Asanogawa River on the Friday evening, but the main event is on the Saturday. During the day a parade starts at Kanazawa Station and winds its way through the city to Kanazawa castle. My highlight though comes after the parade and begins at about 6pm. The whole of the downtown area is closed off, and 10,000 people (all organised into various groups representing Kanazawa’s companies and businesses) perform traditional obon dances in the street wearing summer kimono. A true sight to behold!

The Hyakumangoku Festival - A traditional event... mostly!

The Hyakumangoku Festival – A traditional event… mostly!

6. Kenrokuen Garden

Kanazawa’s most famous attraction is Kenrokuen – the ‘Garden of Six Attributes’, so named as it incorporates the six traditional elements of a perfect garden, all of which are categorised in complimentary pairs: spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas. Each season brings its own charm to the garden, from the plum blossoms in early spring to the yuki-tsuri snow ropes which are painstakingly attached to all of the trees in winter to stop the branches from snapping under the weight of Kanazawa’s plentiful snow.

Kenrokuen Gardens

Kenrokuen Gardens

7. 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

Located next to Kenrokuen is one of Kanazawa’s newest attractions; the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, or Marubi (Round Gallery), as it’s affectionately known to locals. The museum features a number of permanent exhibits which are free to visit, as well as rotating special exhibitions by both Japanese and international artists. Another great reason to pop in is for lunch at the museum’s Fusion 21 restaurant. They do a great buffet lunch of Japanese cuisine such as pickled vegetables sitting alongside European classics. I recommend the pork terrine!

Exhibit at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

Exhibit at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

8. D.T. Suzuki Museum

An even more recent arrival on Kanazawa’s museum scene is this museum dedicated to the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, who was largely responsible for introducing Zen Buddhism to the West during the 1950s. Professor Suzuki was born in Kanazawa, and the displays in this little museum explain about his life and also the Zen Buddhist philosophy that he popularised. The main draw of the museum though is its tranquil atmosphere – a little oasis of calm in the city. The museum’s design mixes traditional Japanese style and contemporary minimalism to great effect. The outside area features a shallow pool, which looks particularly beautiful in autumn when the red leaves are reflected in it.

D. T. Suzuki Museum - Beautiful in autumn!

D. T. Suzuki Museum – Beautiful in autumn!

9. Daijo-ji 

If you’ve caught the Zen bug at the D. T. Suzuki museum, you may want to head over to Daijo-ji temple on the outskirts of the city. Unlike most temples in Japan, entrance to the temple grounds is free. It’s also possible to attend the public zazen meditation meetings on Sunday afternoons. Daijo-ji is a fully functioning training temple, and at any point there may be up to 15 monks in residence. I spent a number of weeks staying there to undertake Zen training during my time in Kanazawa, but it’s not for the faint hearted! The daily schedule begins with two hours of seated meditation and chanting at 4am, followed by hours of laborious work in the gardens and grounds. During the bi-monthly sesshin intense training periods, which last for 5 days, the monks spend 8 hours a day in seated meditation!

Daijo-ji temple's Butsuden (Buddha Hall)

Daijo-ji temple’s Butsuden (Buddha Hall)

10. Katamachi Scramble

After all that seated meditation you may wish to forget that you have legs, and there’s no better place to get legless in Kanazawa than in Katamachi, Kanazawa’s downtown wining and dining district. The focal point is Katamachi ‘Scramble’, the main intersection crossing. Sprawled out from here are hundreds of restaurants and bars. If you’re travelling on a Self-Guided Adventure, our Kanazawa destination guide has some great suggestions of our favourite restaurants in the area. Alternatively, if you’re joining us on one of our Small Group Tours, your tour leader will no doubt take you to one of their favourite spots!

Gotcha - Richard's favourite restaurant in Kanazawa. A stone's throw from the Scramble!

Gotcha – my favourite restaurant in Kanazawa. A stone’s throw from the Scramble! (Photo: gourmet.suntory.co.jp)

Hopefully after your night on the town in Katamachi you’ll be in a fit state to continue your journey in Japan to your next destination! There are so many other great places to explore, but Kanazawa will always hold a special place in my heart!

Kanazawa features as a destination on a number of our Small Group Tours such as Japan Unmasked, Spring Elegance and Japan Enchantment. It’s also an easy destination to fit into a tailored Self-Guided Adventure.

Owl always love you

Claire Brothers is a travel consultant in our Bristol office. As well as having spent seven years in Germany and three in California, Claire lived in Kyoto, Japan, for five years – where she especially enjoying eating street food, trawling antiques markets and visiting Osaka SpaWorld. Though she is now based in the UK, she recently returned to Japan to do some research for InsideJapan Tours – including a very important visit to a Fukuoka Owl Café… 

Who doesn’t love a good owl? With their appealing expressions and inherent charm it is hard to believe these feathery delights are in fact skilled predators and considered by many cultures to be a bad omen. Surely an omen of impending adorableness would be more reasonable? However, defence of the owl’s good name was far from my mind as I recently strolled through the streets of Fukuoka, one of Kyushu’s most vibrant cities. It was my first visit and I decided on an afternoon of exploring, by which of course, I mean shopping.

As I walked through a covered shopping street I found a shop selling butsudan, the shrines that Japanese families keep at home. Inside was a grandmother and two little girls dressed in stunning kimono. Obachan was too shy but the girls happily posed for a photo.

A special day indeed when this is not maximum cuteness.

A special day indeed when this is not maximum cuteness.

As I continued along the street I noticed a queue outside a café with an owl logo. Being both British and a fan of owls, I was compelled to join the queue. The curtains were closed but after a short wait the door opened and a member of staff stepped outside. It was in this moment that I saw them. Through the crack in the door I spied an oasis of owls. Large owls with pointy ears, tiny owls with teddy bear faces, owls as far as my far-too-excited eyes could see.

This guy.

This guy.

With my owl-loving heart beating wildly in my chest I approached the member of staff and asked if it would be possible for me to make a reservation. She explained that they only take reservation on the day and that the next available slot was in one hour. She also handed me a leaflet to read with prices and instructions.

Fukuro no Mise (Owl shop) is an owl café where you can pay either 1,000yen (about £5.50) for a soft drink or 1,200yen (about £7) for a beer. This includes an hour of time with the owls. About 15 people are allowed at the café at a time and both adults and children are allowed. The leaflet explained that we would have time to drink our drinks and hear instructions on how to handle the owls on the upper level of the café before we could interact with the owls on the lower level.

And so, I was in. Whilst the description of how to handle the owls was in rapid-fire Japanese, they provided a handout with instructions in English too. The most important point when handling owls is not to touch their face, chest or feet. You must also hold your arm at a right angle to your body and with one finger extended if the owl is small. This helps the owls to keep balance so they can relax. You stroke the owls gently with the back of your hand. Before stroking a small owl, you should make one of your fingers into a hook shape and show it to the owl. A human hand looks gigantic to a small owl so doing this convinces the owl you are only touching it with a small finger and you are not about to crush it with your human monster paw.

An owl the size of my hand. YES.

An owl the size of my hand. YES.

After drinking my iced coffee in record-breaking time I proceeded down to the owls. There were five owls, each being handled by a member of staff, and the other owls were
“holiday owls”. This meant they were hanging out and we could photograph them but were told strictly not to touch or disturb them otherwise. From there everyone patiently waited for whichever owl they wanted to interact with. You could hold the larger owls on your arm and the smaller ones could go on your arm, shoulder or head.

I met them all. Excited faces ahead….

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This one was the daddy. Or mummy, it’s hard to sex an owl.

This one was the daddy. Or mummy, it’s hard to sex an owl.

This one knew I was too excited.

This one knew I was too excited.

I’m aware of the issues surrounding any kind of animal café and I can understand the objection some people may have to a café which houses wild animals. All I can say is that the owls seemed relaxed and at ease with the environment and did not display any typical signs of stress in captivity like pulling out feathers. The staff seemed to genuinely care for the owls and the emphasis was on always being respectful and considerate of them as animals. As it should be!

Sorry Machu Picchu, this is the best place I've ever been.

Sorry Machu Picchu, this is the best place I have ever been.

Five great ways to celebrate 2015: The Year of the Sheep

According to the Chinese zodiac (which is still used extensively in Japan), 2015 is the year of the sheep (or occasionally goat, depending on who you ask). That’s “Hitsujidoshi” 未年 in Japanese.

So how best to pay homage to this duodecennial event? Below are a few sheepish suggestions to get you started:

1. Climb the “Hill of Sheep”

Located to the southeastern side of Sapporo City on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is Histuji-ga-oka 羊ヶ丘: the “Hill of Sheep”. Though it’s generally pretty rare to see a sheep in Japan, here you’ll find them grazing on hillsides stretched out before you – an especially striking sight at sunset, when the fields turn gold in the dying light.

Whilst here, don’t forget to check out the bronze statue of Dr William S Clark, an American professor who was instrumental in establishing Hokkaido University, and whose advice to his students: “Boys, be ambitious”, is famous throughout Japan. Not particularly sheep-related, but interesting nonetheless.

Hitsuji-ga-oka (Photo: lifetoreset.wordpress.com)

Hitsuji-ga-oka (Photo: lifetoreset.wordpress.com)

2. Eat “Genghis Khan”

Not content with being the founder of the largest contiguous empire of all time, Genghis Khan also lent his name to a Japanese grilled mutton dish: “Jingisukan” ジンギスカン.

The dish consists of strips of mutton grilled on a dome-shaped metal grill in the centre of your table. The dish is so-named because in Japan, lamb is traditionally thought to have been the meat of choice among the Mongol forces, and the dome-shaped grill is meant to represent the soldiers’ helmets, which they supposedly used to cook their food.

You can find “Jingisukan” restaurants in various parts of Japan, but they are most common in Hokkaido – the only area of Japan where sheep continue to be farmed.

Genghis Khan lamb being grilled (Photo: bemall.jp)

Genghis Khan lamb being grilled (Photo: bemall.jp)

3. Go on a Wild Sheep Chase

Figuratively, of course. Delve into some of Japan’s finest contemporary literature and read “Hitsuji o meguru boken” 羊をめぐる冒険 – A Wild Sheep Chase – by Haruki Murakami.

First published in Japan in 1982, the book forms part of Murakami’s celebrated “Trilogy of the Rat” and won the Noma Literary Newcomer’s Prize that year. Combining elements of American and English literature, Japanese animism, mystery, magical realism and postmodernism; the novel follows its protagonist from Tokyo to Hokkaido on his hunt for a sheep that has not been seen for years and will give you an excellent introduction to one of Japan’s finest modern writers.

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4. Send a sheepy New Year card

It is customary in Japan to send New Year cards, or “Nengajo”, to family, friends and business associates. Most people use nengajo sold by the Japan Postal Service with pre-printed, decorative postage stamps – and this year’s cards follow a very special sheep-related theme.

Whereas the Western zodiac runs on a twelve-month cycle, the Eastern zodiac cycles every twelve years – meaning that the last year of the sheep was in 2003. Accordingly, in 2003, the Japan Postal Service produced a card featuring a sheep knitting a scarf. Now, in 2015, their cards feature the same sheep, proudly wearing his finished scarf. This adorable story captured the heart of the world’s media, and has even appeared in international news!

On the Japan Postal Service website the following explanation appears: “The scarf, which was in the middle of being made twelve years ago, is now complete.” Cute!

New Year cards 2003 & 2015

Sheepish New Year cards 2003 & 2015

5. Visit a goat cafe

A slightly tenuous one this, but what the heck. The Japanese are currently having a boom in pet cafes, popular in cities where residents do not have the space or the time to keep animals. First came cat cafes (sooo last season), then rabbits, and then it escalated to owls and eventually to its logical conclusion: goats.

Sakuragaoka, which we mentioned in a post some time ago, is one such cafe (in fact, to our knowledge, the only one), and is located in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. It is home to Sakura and Chocolat, two extremely cute goats who are available for customers to feed and pet.

Feeding Sakura at the the Sakuragaoka goat cafe (Photo: ajw.asahi.com)

Feeding Sakura at the the Sakuragaoka goat cafe (Photo: ajw.asahi.com)

Take your sheep on holiday…… not.

Hold the phone! Put down that sheep passport and step away from the easyjet website.

Contrary to a widespread report that appeared on Yahoo news a couple of years back, “Hotel Sheep”, an exclusive hotel where the rich sheep-lovers of Japan could check in their woolly companions while they went on holiday, was unfortunately a very well-executed and successful hoax. Which is, of course, a huge and continuing incovenience to sheep-lovers everywhere.

So unfortunately, 2015 may be the year of the sheep, but it is not yet the year to take little Shaun to Japan. Who knows, maybe in 2027?

There are of course plenty of non-sheep related places and reasons as to why you should make this years trip Japan here…and we haven’t even mentioned cherry blossom in spring, summer festivals, autumn leaves, great food, unique experiences and places etc etc.

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